The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously last night to secure and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, in a landmark decision aimed at taking poison gas off the battlefield in the escalating conflict.
The vote, after two weeks of intense negotiations, marked a major breakthrough in the paralysis that has gripped the council since the Syrian uprising began. Russia and China previously vetoed three Western-backed resolutions pressuring President Bashar Assad’s regime to end the violence.
“Today’s historic resolution is the first hopeful news on Syria in a long time,” UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon told the council immediately after the vote.
But he stressed that eliminating chemical weapons from the Syrian conflict “is not a licence to kill with conventional weapons”.
US secretary of state John Kerry said the “strong, enforceable, precedent-setting” resolution showed that diplomacy can be so powerful “that it can peacefully defuse the worst weapons of war”.
Mr Kerry said the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile would begin in November and be completed by the middle of next year.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague told the security council: “The failure of the council to tackle the crimes committed on a daily basis has resulted in a culture of impunity in which a brutal regime believed it could get away with murdering its own men women and children.
“So it is vital that the council now builds on the consensus we have reached today to make progress towards a sustainable resolution of the crisis. With renewed purpose and resolve, we need to achieve a political transition.”
Mr Hague also said that until a political solution could be found, greater efforts should be made to tackle the humanitarian crisis afflicting Syria.
He said: “Today’s resolution is about ensuring that the horrors of the 21st of August cannot happen again.
For the first time, the security council endorsed the road map for a political transition in Syria adopted by key nations in June 2012 and called for an international conference to be convened “as soon as possible” to implement it.
Mr Ban said the target date for a new peace conference in Geneva was mid-November.
As a sign of the broad support for the resolution, all 15 council members signed on as co-sponsors.
The resolution calls for consequences if Syria fails to comply, but those will depend on the council passing another resolution in the event of non-compliance. That will give Assad ally Russia the means to stop any punishment from being imposed.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov stressed that the resolution did not automatically impose sanctions on Syria.
The vote came just hours after the world’s chemical weapons watchdog adopted a US-Russian plan that lays out benchmarks and timelines for cataloguing, quarantining and ultimately destroying Syria’s chemical weapons, their precursors and delivery systems.
The security council resolution enshrines the plan approved by Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, making it legally binding.
The agreement allows the start of a mission to rid Syria’s regime of its estimated 1,000-ton chemical arsenal by mid-2014, speeding up a destruction timetable that often takes years to complete.
“We expect to have an advance team on the ground (in Syria) next week,” OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan said at the organisation’s headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands, after its 41-member executive council approved the plan.
The recent flurry of diplomatic activity followed the August 21 poison gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians in a Damascus suburb, and by President Barack Obama’s threat of US strikes in retaliation.
After Mr Kerry said Assad could avert US military action by turning over “every single bit of his chemical weapons” to international control within a week, Russia quickly agreed. Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov signed an agreement in Geneva on September 13 to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control for later destruction, and Assad’s government accepted.
Tough negotiations, primarily between Russia and the United States, followed on how Syria’s stockpile would be destroyed.
The UN resolution’s adoption was assured when the five veto-wielding permament members of the security council – Russia, China, the United States, France and Britain – backed the text yesterday.
The final resolution states that the security council will impose measures under Chapter 7 if Syria fails to comply, but this would require adoption of a second resolution.
It bans Syria from possessing chemical weapons and condemns “in the strongest terms” the use of chemical weapons in the August 21 attack and any other use. It also would ban any country from obtaining chemical weapons or the technology or equipment to produce them from Syria.
In an indication of the enormity of the task ahead, the OPCW appealed for donations to fund the disarmament, saying it will have to hire new weapons inspectors and chemical experts.
Mr Hague announced after today’s vote that the UK would donate £1.8m (2.1m) to the OPCW Syria Trust fund.
Earlier, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi told the UN General Assembly that China was prepared to help fund the disarmament mission.